Scientists have discovered that a cheap hay fever medicine, about only fifty cents per pill, can be an effective treatment for hepatitis C virus infection, a severe liver disease that has generated drugs costing $1,000 per dosage.

This medicine known as antihistamine chlorcyclizine HCL (CCZ) has been approved and available since 1940s. National Institutes of Health (NIH) researchers have established that repurposed chlorcyclizine and other related compounds can cure hepatitis C through early stage blocking of the virus, preventing liver cells infection.

Utilizing cell-based high-throughput screen, scientists have been able to identify that antihistamine can be a potent inhibitor of hepatitis C virus. This method has also been used to examine thousands of US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved drugs for their efficiency against bacterial and viral infections.

Dr. T. Jake Liang, head of Liver Diseases Department at NIH, noted that hepatitis C virus "continues to infect new cells as the infection goes on. So, our thought is, if we can prevent or destruct that reinfection process, the infected cells will die eventually, so you would not have any more infected cells."

The hepatitis C virus has been spreading through contaminated blood products and sexual contact. This infection can also lead to cirrhosis or liver hardening, liver failure and cancer.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 3.2 million Americans have been living with chronic hepatitis C.

Though successful treatments are presently available, "current drugs are expensive, have side effects and are associated with resistance. Also, these drugs are only active against certain HP strains. So, in light of these issues, I think there's still ... a need in the treatment of hepatitis," says Liang.

Promising drugs that can cure hepatitis C virus infection have been available in the market for the last decade, but has been too expensive for patients. Two hepatitis C drugs, manufactured by biotech company Gilead Sciences, come with high costs: for 12-week course, Harvoni is approximately $95,500, and Sovaldi, relatively cheaper, amounts to $84,000; that is equivalent to almost a thousand bucks per dose. Still, most hepatitis C patients are willing to take oral drugs rather than daily injections.

The question now is whether the antihistamine CCZ, an allergy drug currently worth just fifty cents per tablet, would be less expensive after it has been newly formulated for hepatitis C treatment. Liang did not confirm this, but is looking forward that their research would lower the costs of Hepatitis C medication.

"If this particular class of drugs turns out to be effective against hepatitis C, it could be used in combination with existing drugs to perhaps shorten the duration of use," Liang added. "Instead of [taking the drugs] for three or six months it could be [taken] for four weeks. That will certainly reduce the cost of the drugs because you are not taking them for as long."

The research titled "Repurposing of the antihistamine chlorcyclizine and related compounds for treatment of hepatitis C virus infection" was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Photo: Andy Lamb | Flickr

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